Recently, I came across a Philip Whalen poem that offered an amusing example of interspecies communication. Check it out:
Walking along Elm Road Handful of nasturtiums, butter, some kind of bread 75¢ the loaf no advertising included Bread and air and a price tag wrapped in plastic The dogs come out as usual to roar at me I find myself screeching wildly in reply Fed up with suppressing my rage and fear I bellow and roar The dogs are scared and their people scandalized "What are you trying to do? HAY! What are you trying to do?" I had nothing to tell them; I was talking to their dogs.
One of the charms of this poem, for me, is its ordinariness, even banality. Who hasn't, out of sheer frustration with being barked at (by angry dogs or other beings), lost it, and barked back? I know I have, though, unlike Whalen, the last time I remember barking at a dog (a Doberman in my case), I don't think I was able to silence him.
But paradoxically, it's the very unexceptional quality of the event narrated here that makes it unusual. For there's a rich, imaginative tradition, spanning culture high and low, that paints the talent for "talking to animals" as a mysterious, nearly superhuman power.
In fact, in psychic/new age jargon, this talent has got a name --"zoolingualism" -- and it's a power possessed by everyone from Tarzan, Dr. Dolittle and St. Francis, to horse whisperers, like the one Scarlett Johansson once portrayed. Or like the shaman, in Elizabeth Bishop's great poem, "The Riverman," which begins:
I got up in the night for the Dolphin spoke to me. He grunted beneath my window, hid by the river mist, but I glimpsed him -- a man like myself.
When it comes to the mythologies surrounding poets and the act of writing poetry, the tradition of zoolingualism becomes (excuse the pun) even more pronounced. Orpheus, the archetypal poet, could understand the language of birds. And his song tamed even the fiercest beasts, as celebrated in this medieval mosaic (in which you'll notice a few wild dogs).
Whalen himself, for that matter, wasn't averse to this more mythic type of interspecies communication. Here's his poem "Never Apologize; Never Explain":
A pair of strange new birds in the maple tree Peer through the windows Mother and father visiting me: "You are unmarried, No child begot Now we are birds, now you've forgotten us Although in dreams we visit you in human shape"
They speak Homer's language Sing like Aeschylus
The life of a poet: less than 2/3rds of a second.
The Language of Barking
What's especially interesting, though, when it comes to a poem like "The Turn," is that the down-to-earth way it portrays such communications suggests how the sounds we emit as natural, rather than supernatural, beings actually can resemble the language of dogs, or other (nonhuman) species. Alva Noe, a philosopher grounded in cognitive science, comments:
"One of the very many false ideas about language is that its primary function is to express information or communicate thoughts. Speech has many functions, but surely a large part of it is more like the grooming behavior of chimpanzees or the shepherding behavior of dogs than it is like reasoned discourse among parliamentarians. We bark so that our kids get out the door in time to get on their bus and so that they feel safe and loved...The bulk of what we do and say each day is more like the grunts and signals baseball players use to indicate who'll catch the pop fly than it is like genuine conversation."
All of which is to say that language involves the performance of acts as much as it does the transmission of ideas. The dogs bark to chase Whalen away. He barks back to stand his ground. You could say at this moment -- one animal communicating with other animals -- he's "one with nature," as a Romantic might put it. But this doesn't mean, in the poem's realist version of this idea, that man and beast are necessarily going to get along.
Then again, to complicate matters a bit more, perhaps the language the dogs and the poet speak here has nothing to do whatsoever with anything the least bit "natural." For aren't the dogs stand-ins for their owners, speaking a social message for which they've been trained, one that can simply be translated as "no trespassing"?
And by answering the dogs, rather than their owners, perhaps the poet implies that such social aggression, unleashed on whoever's in the mere vicinity of a private property, doesn't deserve a civil reply. Thoughts?
In an interview the philosopher Martin Heidegger gave later in life, he spoke about how our technology had uprooted us, not only from tradition, but the very earth itself. He added that this alienation had reached such an advanced state that "only a god can save us."
I found it amusing, and a bit surprising, that in the recent summer blockbuster Godzilla, when this "god" finally arrives, he takes the the form of a giant, fire-breathing dragon.
If you've seen the film, you know that due to our experiments with dangerous technologies (in this case, nuclear energy), great beasts arise from the depths to torment humanity. Our main persecutor comes in the form of a giant, moth-like creature. Godzilla follows this "MUTO" ("Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism") up from wherever such beings live, to hunt down and destroy it. A battle ensues and God(zilla) is on our side all the way.
When I say Godzilla is a god, I mean that literally. As Director Gareth Edwards put it in The Daily Beast, the MUTO represents "man's abuse of nature," and Godzilla "is a god, really. He's at the top of the food chain and probably King of the World." Godzilla is also called a god by characters in the film.
The mission of this godly being is to restore the balance of nature (that the MUTO throws out of whack), saving humanity in the process, as a sort of fortuitous side-effect. At the end of the film, as Godzilla leaves the ravaged city where his battle with the evil MUTO took place, the crowd watching breaks out in a cheer.
This means, though, that even with its happy ending, the film has a pessimistic, somber mood -- not unlike Heidegger's later philosophy. Humanity seems helpless. Most of the action takes place between the behemoths. All the military/scientific team that gathers in the crisis can do ultimately, is "let them fight," as one character mutters reverently.
And yet, despite the reality of the issues the movie alludes to, I found it hard to take the messenger entirely seriously. A popcorn movie, where a couple of monsters jam it out, after all, can't help but seem more fun and silly than profound.
As a result, I found myself reading into the movie in more mundane ways. And I thought about Godzilla being a savior of something less grand than the earth itself.
Recently I've been reading a fascinating book about the entertainment industry by Anita Elberse titled Blockbusters. In it, she shows that the main vehicle the movie business now favors is the big-budget, special-effects flick. As a result, it follows a strategy in which it sinks most of its investment dollars into such blockbusters, in search of giant wins. She also shows that the rest of the entertainment industry is pretty much following suit.
Elberse tells us that this industry increasingly relies on blockbusters, in part, to avoid the need to place its bets on smaller, riskier properties, aimed at niche markets -- an approach often associated with the fragmentation of audiences that came about because of the web and the digital age. Instead, the blockbuster makes old-school mass-marketing to a mass audience still possible.
You could say, then, that Godzilla saves not only the earth, but, on a more trivial level, the movie studio that produced the film he stars in, by offering the promise of the kind of big profits that will keep it afloat.
And blockbusters don't just save the movie industry from being at the mercy of niche tastes. Elberse doesn't talk about this so directly in her book, but another aspect of entertainment in the digital age is that lots of it is free. Blockbusters, designed for big, 3-D screens, are one of the entertainment products for which people are still willing to pay.
In this light, Godzilla isn't only saving the earth; he's also helping the paid entertainment economy fight off the increasingly powerful free one -- or what Jeremy Rifkin has recently termed the "collaborative commons."
And in this regard, perhaps this economic message is related to the ecological pessimism you see in the film. For the same, clumsy, old school, big-time capitalism that survives by producing blockbusters, is, according to Rifkin, incapable of dealing with ecological crises. What he predicts, instead (in The Zero Marginal Cost Society), is the coming of "Collaboratism," a new economic paradigm that transcends both capitalism and socialism.
Until then, I suppose, one might have to agree with Heidegger, that only a god -- or perhaps a Godzilla -- can save us.
Recently I've had the pleasure of reading a manuscript of poems by Joanna Fuhrman titled The Year of Yellow Butterflies (forthcoming this Spring, from Hanging Loose Press). At the center of this jazzy collection is a sequence of prose poems (by the same name) that drew my mind into them, with a kind of magnetic charge.
Each poem starts with the phrase "It was the year..." What follows are often surreal, sometimes allegorical, takes on our culture's obsession with trends, satirizing our strange customs or jarring them out of their conventionality by infusing a healthy dose of wonder. "It was the year Goth, rockabilly manicurists applied mini-wigs to women's nails," one poem begins; another, "It was the year hipsters started using coffins as coffee tables..."; and another: "It was the year us geezers wore digital masks."
One of the ways this sequence achieves its poetically satiric effects is by fusing realities you usually think of as opposed, such as business and poetry ("It was the year no one could tell the difference between a poem and a resume..."), to natural and mechanical ("They'd hook you up in a gizmo that looked like a cross between a beauty salon chair dryer and a futuristic orange squid"). The following poem from the sequence is a particularly good example such fusion:
"It was the year everyone decorated the outside of their houses to look like the inside, and the inside to look like the outside.
You liked to wear a jumpsuit with an x-ray of a skeleton silk-screened on it. I liked to wear an earring shaped like a decaying liver.
Once I crashed into a friend's wall because I thought it was the sky.
We placed our teacups on a tree trunk ottoman and rested our heads on waterfall pillows. You were wearing an ocean on your mouth, and I was dressed like the sun."
This poem (which contains an echo of Kenneth Koch's "You Were Wearing") not only offers satire and humor, but, as I mentioned earlier, a charge of wonder. This is the result, I think, of what cognitively-oriented literary critics would term its "conceptual blending." In it, you find that images of the "natural" and the "cultural", as well as the "inside" and "outside" become integrated, like one of those reversible jackets they used to sell.
Such blending made me think of a painter like Magritte. In a work like "The Memoirs of a Saint," for example, what's usually outside (the sky) is contained inside a stage curtain. As in the Fuhrman poem, natural and cultural images are blended into each other -- in this case, in a sort of playful riff off the idea that "the whole world is a stage." (Or, is staged.)
I came across an even more pertinent example of all this in an essay about Emily Dickinson's famous poem beginning "I dwell in Possibility -/a fairer House than Prose", by cognitive lit scholar Margaret H. Freeman.
You might remember that in this poem, Dickinson offers a metaphorical argument as to why poetry is richer than prose. Here's part of her description of the "house of poetry":
Of chambers as the Cedars -- Impregnable of eye -- And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels [Gabels] of the sky --
As Freeman points out, the suggestion of poetry's expansive possibilities as a genre is communicated here by the blending of the semantic concepts such as the "inside" (rooms of a house), with those of the "outside." In contrast to the conventional abode of prose, poetry's "house" is one whose roof is the very sky itself.
What's especially valuable about Freeman's essay is that it suggests how such blending offers a way to think about the act of writing poetry as a form of cultural politics. By drawing attention to a more integrated way of perceiving things, poems throw light on the impoverished quality of our normal, day-to-day existence. Along these lines, she quotes poet John Burnside, who defines surrealist Paul Eluard's autremonde as:
"that nonfactual truth of being: the missed world, and by extension, the missed self who sees and imagines and is fully alive outside the bounds of socially-engineered expectations -- not some rational process (or not as the term is usually understood) but by a kind of radical illumination, a re-attunement to the continuum of objects and weather and other lives we inhabit."
Such a comment clarifies for me what I find so appealing about the satiric qualities of writing like Fuhrman's. It doesn't just poke fun at the everyday, reified banality we are all party to in our world of total commerce.
It also offers a glimpse of what we're missing: a cooler, richer reality just outside of our conventional boundaries.
Continuing to think about our habit of reading into facial expressions (see last post), brought to mind an experience I had once viewing an exhibit of visual art.
I was at MOMA a few years back, checking out the Chuck Close retrospective. In the room that housed his early works from the 60s, I came across the giant, photorealistic portraits for which he is well known.
I had an odd experience viewing these huge "heads" together in one place. Close has made it clear that his portraits are paintings of photographs -- not studies from "real life." Because of this fact, you'd think you were several steps away from attributing psychological presence to these works. In fact, I'm told that if you view them up close, you can actually see the grid of tiny boxes through which they're created; it's as if you're looking at a mosaic made of hundreds of tiles, each with a miniature abstract painting inside.
Yet, oddly, the paintings also seemed to carry symbolic messages. In the portrait of Philip Glass, for example, the swirling patterns of Glass's hair and skin rhymed, for me, with the epic, circular movement of his music. It seemed as if his face were some sort of medieval emblem, in which the spirit of his inner creativity manifested in the flesh.
What I found striking was how this inner spirit fought its way through the artificial quality that Close foregrounds. It was as if a certain presence would not be denied -- even if the artist telegraphed this was a simulation of a simulation; even if you knew the painting's effect was the result of Close's own "smoke and mirrors."
It was almost as if the artificial aspect of the work was precisely what made it more absorbing.
Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption"
An especially lucid analysis of the phenomena I've just described is found in a piece I alluded to in the last post: Charles Bernstein's essay-in-verse titled "Artifice of Absorption." Toward its end, Bernstein describes the experience of watching Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.
In this play, the character "Krapp" listens to autobiographical diary entries he made via tape recordings during earlier periods of his life. But just as he, and we, as audience, begin to be absorbed in these accounts, Krapp reminds himself and us of their artifice. He frequently switches off the tape, interupting the narrative flow, fast forwarding at times, stopping at others to make sarcastic comments on his own youthful naivete.
But our heightened awareness of the mechanical device through which Krapp's "heartfelt" confessions are communicated, rather than make us more distanced, draws us in. Bernstein comments:
"Indeed, the very jagged moments when the tape is abruptly turned off -- moments in which the listener's absorption may seem to be ruptured -- only serve to heighten the dramatic power of the play. Beckett's incisively spliced dislocations have a spellbinding theatrical effect..."
The emotional content of the performance seems more real, then, precisely because the work refuses to become "absorbed" in the "vain hopes" of the stories the character once told himself. It's as if a higher degree of honesty -- and hence authenticity -- results from the very acknowledgement of the ephemeral quality of the stories Krapp tells himself.
And the presence of a tape machine in the play underlines the fact that even our most basic sense of our lives and identities is unavoidably mediated -- that an immaculate perception of ourselves is impossible.
Both Close and Beckett come from the realm of high art, but I've also seen forms of popular culture that achieve "realism effects" by doing something similar.
Recently I watched an indie horror film titled Alien Abduction (about so-called true events involving disappearances and "strange lights" that occurred in the Brown Mountains of North Carolina).
The story, of course, was far-fetched. But what made it gripping, nonetheless, was the technique through which it was told. As we watch this tale of alien abduction involving a small family, we are constantly reminded, by its shaky, hand-held quality (and occasional blackouts) that we are watching a homemade video (in this case, one filmed by an autistic boy). The camera, in fact, is as much a character in the movie as the people.
As such, the movie is the latest in a low-budget genre that began with the Blair Witch Project, in which outlandish tales gain a degree of realism by seeming to be filmed by "real" people on poor quality equipment.
All of which leads me to wonder whether if, today, in order to achieve a "suspension of disbelief," it helps to have a recording device somewhere nearby. Thoughts?
Also of Interest: My new book of poems, The Cheapskates, from Lunar Chandelier Press, is now available from Small Press Distribution. Click here.
Review of The Cheapskates by David Lehman, click here, and another by Michael Lally (with my poem on Chuck Close), click here.